Zion Williamson gets to the basket at Miami in preseason

Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram demonstrate initial improvement in targeted areas

More good news: Eric Bledsoe, JJ Redick expected to play Friday vs. Bucks
by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

After Zion Williamson drained his fourth consecutive foul shot Monday, Miami’s TV broadcast inadvertently captured New Orleans assistant coach Fred Vinson receiving a brief, subtle, congratulatory fist bump on the sideline. Apparently, Vinson has been working with Williamson on his free throws, to try to help the 20-year-old forward improve upon the 64 percent he shot as a rookie.

It was only one game to open the preseason, but the ultra-early signs are encouraging. Williamson sank 10 of his 11 attempts in the win over the Heat, excelling from a spot on the court where he’s likely to spend significant time in 2020-21.

“I feel like I’m going to get fouled a lot,” Williamson said of trips to the foul line; he averaged 7.4 per game last season. “Free throws – it’s free money. I’ve got to make that count. Me and Coach Vinson have been putting in a lot of work every day in practice. Free throws, jumpers. Just working on everything involving my shot. It’s been very helpful to this point.”

“Obviously, his free throw shooting was outstanding,” Stan Van Gundy said, after his unofficial debut as New Orleans head coach. “He’s going to be at the line a lot. His ability to make free throws will be huge for us.”

Williamson averaged 22.5 points per game last season, but that number theoretically would’ve been a full point higher if he’d shot 78 percent or better at the line. Foul shooting was a concern for New Orleans as a team as well, with the Pelicans placing second-worst in the NBA (72.9), so improvement from its most frequent visitor could be highly beneficial.

While Williamson demonstrated the potential Monday to make strides in an area of past weakness for him, at the other end of AmericanAirlines Arena hardwood, fellow starting forward Brandon Ingram did the same on defense. A first-time All-Star last season, Ingram has spoken often about trying to become a better defensive player. In 31 minutes against the Heat, the 6-foot-7, 190-pounder helped create some of Miami’s 13 turnovers, totaling three steals and a block (a second swat was negated by a goaltending violation).

“Brandon just has really long arms,” Williamson said. “So even if you feel like he is a step behind when you’re making a pass, he’s able to use his length and get a deflection. He’s really gotten great at using his body and his length.”

“He’s just playing hard,” Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker said of Ingram’s defense. “One thing people don’t know about him is he really studies the game a lot. He’s really smart. He was able to read their offense and anticipate plays before they happened. That put him in position to get a block. It’s the little things that he does on a day-in, day-out basis that allowed him to do that.”

New Orleans seems to again have plenty of offensive firepower on its roster and scored 25-plus points in every quarter Monday – despite being without guards Eric Bledsoe and JJ Redick, who will both be available Friday vs. Milwaukee – but also showed positive signs on defense. The Pelicans held the Heat to 39 second-half points and a total of 92 (granted, Miami didn’t have Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic in the lineup). New Orleans finished just 21st in defensive efficiency last season, making that an area of concentration from Day 1 of an abbreviated training camp. Ingram indicated Monday that he wants to contribute more and be a defensive leader in his second season in the Crescent City.

“It starts with me getting into the basketball, setting the tone on the defensive end,” Ingram said. “We get better from that. We (sometimes) let teams get comfortable by not getting into the ball and I definitely started (that way) in the first quarter, but as the game went on, we got better.”

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